Monday May 12 2014

When we assess Uneb, the scores are dismally low

By Nick T. Twinamatsiko

Uganda National Examinations Board has lately been the subject of public assessment, as well an exposed specimen for the public assessment of government’s involvement in the running of its agencies. We have watched and assessed and the scores are dismally low.
Board chairman Fagil Mandy’s public image suffered a heavy dent when the IGG released a report that found him wanting on the scores of character and competence. But, three weeks later, in a twist of irony, Mandy managed to walk away from the institution looking like a man whose sensitive nose could no longer bear the stench around him.

In absolute terms he may be flawed, but, against the backdrop of the entrenched culture of sidelining principles, he managed to come across as a man of honour. It seems government counted on two wrongs making a right.
They wanted to ignore the IGG’s report – obviously compromising the position of the whistleblowers – but act as if there was no board chairman while extending the tenure of the Executive Secretary. It was probably calculated that Mandy would accept the humiliation, since his own position was in their hands. But Mandy stoutly stood on the side of principle, and if the applause he garnered on social media is anything to go by, it’s evident that one right can cancel out many wrongs!

The attempt to put Mandy in an insecure position where he could be easily controlled may be the key to understanding government’s insistence on retaining officials that are past retirement age. People who are past retirement age know that there is always a ready excuse for their dismissal, and may therefore be more compliant to directives ‘from above’.
It seems government wouldn’t have minded Mandy’s shortfalls in character and competence as long as he was ready to take orders, and it seems an octogenarian’s diminishing ability won’t be as much a factor as his submissiveness when government officials are deciding about his tenure. A government that likes people it can control will gravitate towards those pinned by the IGG or those beyond retirement age.

The public’s readiness to lionise a man that the IGG had found culpable a few weeks before draws attention to the low standards to which we hold our public officials. Incidentally, these low standards have been institutionalised – they are reflected in the performance appraisal of public officials.

These performance appraisals may focus on completion of tasks, but they ignore the quality of outputs. Quality issues only come into focus when there is a public uproar, but the absence of public uproar doesn’t mean the right quality standards are being achieved.

I have noticed that when the media and government officials appraise Uneb, they limit themselves to whether or not there have been examination leakages. And so, every time Mr Matthew Bukenya has been praised, it has been for curbing leakages.

But even examinations that are full of errors, or that otherwise lack the capacity to appropriately test candidates, can be tightly guarded. So it’s good that examination papers haven’t leaked, but what kind of examination papers have they been? Why are some universities increasingly finding it necessary to subject admission applicants to other examinations? If exams leaked under David Livingstone Ongom – and they leaked only once – then Bukenya who has prevented leakages must be doing an excellent job, whatever the quality of the guarded papers might be.

When ministers comment glowingly about the performance of some officials, journalists should ask about the parameters used in appraisal. The answers would shed a great light on the low standards against which our public service is measured.
Mr Twinamatsiko is a civil engineer and novelist